Hampton Roads businesses take hit from changing storm forecasts and evacuation order

The Virginian-Pilot

Perhaps Hurricane Florence didn’t bring gale-force winds to Hampton Roads, but many of the region’s businesses felt its blow.

An evacuation order early last week prompted many workers to leave town, said Jon Pruden, co-owner of the gourmet sandwich chain Taste Unlimited.

Being short-staffed caused Taste to close early at a few locations Thursday. That was in addition to shutting down all eight restaurants, including in Newport News, Friday for a storm that never arrived.

In hindsight, Pruden, whose company employs 350 people, believes many people who fled the region and state could have stayed nearby, holing up at friends’ houses.

“It was only kind of after the fact that people realized they could abide by the order and remain available for work,” he said.

Pruden is one of many Hampton Roads business owners frustrated about how state officials communicated the selective zone-based evacuation. Ahead of Hurricane Florence, when weather forecasters predicted a category 4 storm, Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday issued a mandatory evacuation of Zone A, low-lying coastal properties that would be the most vulnerable during a flood. About 245,000 Virginians live in those areas.

Even as the storm moved south and meteorologists downgraded its severity, the executive order remained in effect until Friday, when the National Hurricane Center ended its tropical storm warning for coastal Virginia. It was the state’s first time issuing a mandatory evacuation using the emergency zone plan.

Not only were some workers unclear about how far they had to go, but many businesses in Zone A seemed confused about whether the evacuation pertained to them or just residents.

Some remained open the entire week while others boarded up, taped their windows and sandbagged their doors. The sun was shining during many of those lost business hours.

On Fort Monroe in Hampton, The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery announced it would be closed Tuesday through Friday — it reopened earlier than planned when evacuation orders were lifted. Just down the road, The Deadrise restaurant only closed from Thursday after lunch until dinner time Friday. In Norfolk, Waterside District, a food hall and entertainment venue on the Elizabeth River, shut down Tuesday following the governor’s order and didn’t reopen until Friday. Meanwhile, The Main, a Hilton hotel and conference center just a block away, continued accepting guests.

All those properties are in Zone A.

“There were a lot of people who sought refuge here,” said Kevin Thorstenson, managing director of The Main. “A lot of our associates stayed here at the hotel.”

Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said the evacuation was for everyone in Zone A, including businesses. Technically, violations of the executive order would be misdemeanor offenses, which carry up to $2,500 fines and a maximum of a year in jail.

State and local officials, however, did not enforce the order, he said.

“We understand that some folks may have concerns about the inconvenience and the fact that the evacuation and the storm track moved south,” Caldwell said. “But the No. 1 priority was saving lives.”

Planalytics, a Pennsylvania-based weather analytics firm, estimated Florence could result in $700 million in lost sales, spread across the storm’s path. But Evan Gold, executive vice president of the company, admits the situation in coastal Virginia, where the storm didn’t hit but which had a selective evacuation, is an unusual scenario.

He compares the business disruption to other unforeseen problems, like a burst plumbing pipe that requires a closure for repairs. And it’s not uncommon for businesses to have some kind of business-disruption insurance to cover such situations.

“The storm itself, you can argue, is an act of God,” he said. “The decision to evacuate and close is a human one. So how do you account for that?”

Depending on the type of business, some probably were more affected than others. Many office-based businesses can keep humming with employees working from home, and productivity isn’t significantly affected, Gold said.

A mom-and-pop restaurant might be hit hard, especially if it remained closed during the entire four-day evacuation. The saving grace might have been that the order was lifted before the weekend, when many retail and entertainment businesses have the opportunity to make the bulk of their sales, he said.

However, when storms shut down businesses, restaurant sales often don’t get made up. While a shopper who wants to buy shoes Thursday probably will buy them Saturday, someone who wants a meal on Thursday isn’t going to eat an extra meal to make up for it later.

The Deadrise, situated right on the water, didn’t see many guests after the evacuation order, even though the restaurant stayed open. General manager Verdie Mae tried to have a little fun on social media to bring people in, posting a picture of a hurricane cocktail, a recipe she brought over from her native New Orleans, on the restaurant’s outdoor deck. The post got plenty of “likes” on Facebook, but didn’t convince many people to come out and buy a drink on the waterfront, Mae said.

Mae said she had to keep all Deadrise employees on call hour by hour and pay extra attention to the forecast — the restaurant stores fresh seafood and, so a flip-flopping hurricane trajectory was extremely frustrating to watch, especially Thursday and Friday when the restaurant was closed while the weather wasn’t any worse than an average storm.

The biggest weather impact The Deadrise saw during the week actually had nothing to do with Florence — on Tuesday, the restaurant actually briefly lost power during a thunderstorm. Mae said the restaurant bounced back well and business had been good during the weekend since reopening.

At Pendulum Fine Meats, Dylan Wakefield was trying his best to play catch-up. After closing the restaurant and butcher shop Friday, a day the business normally has a popular $6 burger deal, he decided to offer the discount Saturday.

He posted about it on Facebook, and customers showed up. While he nearly recouped Friday’s lost sales, he believes his revenue was still down about 40 percent last week, due to 1½ days of being closed and several regular customers evacuating.

But he’s most concerned about his hourly employees, half of whom missed several days of work because they evacuated. They’re going to be feeling the repercussions of Florence when they get their next paycheck.

“I’m going to try to help them make back those hours,” he said.

While some businesses may have gotten a raw deal from the inaccurate storm predictions, other businesses benefited from those emergency preparations. Grocery stores sold out of bottled water and toilet paper. Hardware stores moved sandbags and generators.

At Double Tap, a Virginia Beach military surplus store, ready-to-eat meals were flying off the shelves. Customers bought freeze-dried pizzas, flashlights, batteries, medical kits and water filters.

“It’s first come first serve,” the store had said in a Facebook post Monday.

Elisha Sauers, 757-222-3864, elisha.sauers@pilotonline.com. Staff writer Josh Reyes contributed to this report.

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